samman1994

Average SOP word/page count when not specified? (Biological Sciences)

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Hello everyone, 

So I have been looking at the department of the schools I want to apply, and almost none of them say anything regarding word count or page limit. Only one has stated normally SOPs are more than 1 page but less than 3. So with no direction I have a couple questions regarding SOP in Biological Sciences:

1) How long is the average SOP? Is it defined by page numbers or word count?

2) Is it double spaced? This goes back to question one in regards to what defines length. A double spaced SOP can actually be a very short 2 pages, where a single spaced one can come across as quite a lengthy SOP. 

3) What is the average or standard Format used? I am thinking of using just 3 paragraphs (focus, fit, future), with no real particular format (e.g. APA, MLA, etc.). Will that look bad? Should I use a particular format?

4) How about Font size? I usually use Font 14 (I like my letters relatively big), but my PI always complained it was way too big and a font size of 12 is perfect. This will again, effect the length of the paper, since smaller font, more information that can be put

5) And finally, why all of this matters, what is the "perfect" length. What I mean by that is more defined by characters. Yes, single space with 12 font is going to be a very detailed and heavy letter even if its only 1 page, but that might be too much for the person reading it. Again, I'm thinking 3 paragraphs, so that's just going to come across as 3 giant blocks of text. Double space with 14 font would be nice, have it come out to 2.5 pages, so it's nicely spaced and big enough for the reader to easily read through it, but then you'll be sacrificing extra details you could put in. What is a good font size/page formatting that will allow you write a good amount, but also be appealing to the reader that will be reading it. 

I ask these because I want to write something detailed but concise, but have been given no parameters by the schools. Detailed enough it gives the reader a good idea of what I'm going for and why I want to attend (and why they want me), but not too much that it jades them and becomes overbearing. I'm trying to create some parameters for myself so I know how much I can write, so I can prioritize whats important to include, and unimportant enough to keep out. Thanks ahead of time as always!

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If anyone has a different experience, feel free to correct me, but 12 point font is the gold standard for academic writing, including SoPs. Since I'm not from your field, I would suggest maybe looking at the requirements for other programs you chose not to apply to. They may include reqs for SoPs that make it clearer what is normal in your field and what your adcoms will probably expect. Although it is good to do focus/fit/future these do not necessarily need to be 3 large paragraphs. You may have more than one reason or more than one thing you wish to discuss in fit or future, or you may want to break your focus down to topic and methodology. It's perfectly acceptable to have more than three paragraphs while sticking to those three main topics. 

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15 hours ago, samman1994 said:

Hello everyone, 

So I have been looking at the department of the schools I want to apply, and almost none of them say anything regarding word count or page limit. Only one has stated normally SOPs are more than 1 page but less than 3. So with no direction I have a couple questions regarding SOP in Biological Sciences:

1) How long is the average SOP? Is it defined by page numbers or word count?

2) Is it double spaced? This goes back to question one in regards to what defines length. A double spaced SOP can actually be a very short 2 pages, where a single spaced one can come across as quite a lengthy SOP. 

3) What is the average or standard Format used? I am thinking of using just 3 paragraphs (focus, fit, future), with no real particular format (e.g. APA, MLA, etc.). Will that look bad? Should I use a particular format?

4) How about Font size? I usually use Font 14 (I like my letters relatively big), but my PI always complained it was way too big and a font size of 12 is perfect. This will again, effect the length of the paper, since smaller font, more information that can be put

5) And finally, why all of this matters, what is the "perfect" length. What I mean by that is more defined by characters. Yes, single space with 12 font is going to be a very detailed and heavy letter even if its only 1 page, but that might be too much for the person reading it. Again, I'm thinking 3 paragraphs, so that's just going to come across as 3 giant blocks of text. Double space with 14 font would be nice, have it come out to 2.5 pages, so it's nicely spaced and big enough for the reader to easily read through it, but then you'll be sacrificing extra details you could put in. What is a good font size/page formatting that will allow you write a good amount, but also be appealing to the reader that will be reading it. 

I ask these because I want to write something detailed but concise, but have been given no parameters by the schools. Detailed enough it gives the reader a good idea of what I'm going for and why I want to attend (and why they want me), but not too much that it jades them and becomes overbearing. I'm trying to create some parameters for myself so I know how much I can write, so I can prioritize whats important to include, and unimportant enough to keep out. Thanks ahead of time as always!

I'd agree with GreenEyedTrombonist on the 12 point max. The general consensus for what I've seen around the web is 1.5–2 pages. One of the programs I'm applying to explicitly states a maximum of 1500 words, although that definitely seems a bit too much. I'm aiming (or struggling to keep under) the 1000 word limit, spread across two pages with 1.15 linespace. Regarding format or content, I find this presentation to be helpful:

https://grad.ucla.edu/asis/agep/advsopstem.pdf

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I also agree that 12 point font is the standard in academia and you should stick to that. Profs are used to reading this font size too, because it's often the standard requirement for things like grants or other proposals they must read and write.

Typically, in the sciences, single space is the new standard. Your specific field may be different, but I have not heard this about biology. Double spacing manuscripts is intended to make editing and corrections easier, i.e. it's for drafts, not finished products like your SOP. In modern times, with PDF annotation and other electronic means for making edits, I rarely see any requests for double-spacing, except from people who really like to make notes on paper the old fashioned way.

It's okay to increase the line spacing a little bit for readability. 1.15x spacing sounds nice. I also agree that you can go up to 1.5x spacing without making it look too spaced out. Whatever you can do to make the reader's life easier is better. However, be sure to follow instructions exactly. If there is an expected format from the instructions, after reading dozens of essays, the ones that aren't correctly formatted stick out like a sore thumb, and you probably don't want to be exceptional in that sense.

There is no standard way to define the length of an academic document (i.e. word count vs. page length). The general conversion rate is 250 words per double-spaced page, or 500 words per single-space page. I would say that for my field, a typical length is 1.5-2 pages of single space (or slightly larger than single space), which translates to 750-1000 words. I feel that in the sciences, we typically ask for page count limits, not word limits because no one wants to count words, much easier to count pages.

Since your schools have no explicit instructions, you can interpret this as fairly flexible. No need to aim for a specific length, so don't stress if it's only 600 words or something, as long as you make the important points. I think you'll be safe if you aim for something that fills one entire page and then at least half of the second page.

Finally, I would advise against writing the SOP in only 3 paragraphs. Those paragraphs will be way too long and while the "3 F" approach you are following sounds like it will be a good guideline to keep in mind for the document, that doesn't mean one paragraph for each of the Fs. Usually, the defining feature of a paragraph is that it is used to communicate one idea. The sentences in each paragraph present the idea and provide support for that idea. But if someone were to summarize your SOP, they should end up with one bullet point per paragraph, give or take. Unless you truly only want to convey one single point for "fit", for example, I would advise you to split up the main points into more paragraphs.

This last part could be personal preference though. I personally like shorter paragraphs, 3-5 sentences each. Some people feel like 3 sentences is too short for a paragraph but I don't like combining too many thoughts into one paragraph. For something like a SOP, where a reader will likely skim through dozens of them in a single sitting, I would argue that whatever your usual preference may be, shorter paragraphs might be better. Imagine if someone was only going to read the first sentence of each paragraph (which they might, for a SOP initial review). What would be the key points you want to convey?

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Thanks guys!. I'll do 12 point font, and the spacing I guess will depend on how long my paragraphs are. If I have a lot of short paragraphs, I don't think each sentence needs to be spaced out more than just 1 or 1.15 at the most, they're short paragraphs. If they're more on the longer side, I'll space them out by 1.5. 

I like the idea of bullet points for each paragraph. I think that's probably how I'll organize it. I'll have 3 overarching themes (the 3 Fs) and then I'll have bullet points underneath each topic (e.g. under Fit I'll have one bullet point for facilities and another one for faculty, so my fit will come out to 2 paragraphs instead of one). Thanks again!

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Glad we could help!

 

I'm working on my SoP right now and am focusing on getting all of the information out first (before editing and tailoring to each program). My focus section is about 5 paragraphs at the moment (about 1.25 pages single spaced/724 words), though I expect that will reduce as I remove fluff and interweave my focus with the fit. I expect my sections will be focus (longest), fit (next longest), future (fairly short and direct). Right now I think the hardest part for completing it will be tailoring the fit section to each school, mostly because I'm looking at 11 programs, haha. :) 

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Well before I even start I'm emailing my top faculty member at each school I'm applying for and discussing their research with them and introducing myself. I plan on using the information they provided (as well as the hopefully good relationship I can create with them), in my fit and maybe even focus section. So I haven't started mine yet, but from bainstorming I think my focus will be relatively short and direct (I know exactly what I want to do, and how I want to do it), the fit will probably be the longest (in depth discussion of the facilities, how they will be useful to me, and their faculty members and exactly what they're doing and why it interests me).  Future will be relatively short as well, probably about as long as my focus. 

The way I look at it is, the person reading this will probably not be an expert in the field I'm going into, and might just have general knowledge about it, so I don't want to go into too much detail. However they will be aware of the facilities (instrumentation) and faculty members (and a brief overview of what they do), so I want the reader to primarily see that I know my field well, know what instruments to use and how, and same thing with the faculty. I want their impression to be: "He knows what he wants, how he wants to do it, and who he wants to do it with". That way they can see why i want to go to their school, and that will hopefully convince them why they would want me to go to their school too. 

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Yeah, I have put off the fit section specifically because I've been emailing programs and POIs to get a better understanding of the department culture and how my interests fit with their faculty. Since I know the research project I want to do I decided to start writing that section while I wait for replies and follow-ups. 

Since I've done my MA already and have a couple research projects under my belt, I used part of the focus section to explain how my focus came from the intersection of previous projects I have already conducted; kind of a way to explain not just what I want to do, but why I am a good candidate to conduct the research. That's why I think my focus section will be longer. My fit section will explore how my research will benefit from specific professors, how I fit into department culture, and then other facilities/programs the department has access to to which I can contribute. 

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You should do what you feel is best and based on advice from your respective fields. I'll just offer some of my thoughts too.

1 hour ago, samman1994 said:

So I haven't started mine yet, but from bainstorming I think my focus will be relatively short and direct (I know exactly what I want to do, and how I want to do it), the fit will probably be the longest (in depth discussion of the facilities, how they will be useful to me, and their faculty members and exactly what they're doing and why it interests me).  Future will be relatively short as well, probably about as long as my focus.

What is missing, to me, from this plan is the part where you discuss your past experience and how it will lead you to succeed in this graduate program. I'd say this would fall under the "fit" category of the FFF model, and a common SOP structure is Fit (your experience), Focus, Fit (their facilities & people), Future. Another common one is Focus, Fit (experience to show why you're a good fit for the focus, then blend to fit in terms of facilities and people) then Future. There's no single magic formula, just illustrating a point.

In addition, from the way you framed this SOP, your essay right now sounds like it will be very one-sided. In other words, it sounds like you are offering tons of reasons why you want to be at their program and why it will benefit you, but you should also ensure that you write this SOP to show how you would be a good addition to their department (Note: emphasis on "show"). Now, since you have not started writing yet, you probably would have planned to say this anyways, but sometimes initial mindset can subtly change the way you phrase things. In your outline here, you've only emphasize why you would benefit from the grad program and but that is only one side of the "fit" aspect. The other side is also important: you want to demonstrate that you will succeed in their program and be a PhD student they would be proud to graduate (for adcom members not related to your work) and/or would want to work with (for the members who are related to your application).

One last note: like @GreenEyedTrombonist, I had a Masters going into PhD applications, so I spent a fair bit of time/space in my SOP about my past. Probably more than most guidelines, I'd say 2/3 of my SOP was about my history (however, in the spirit of the "fit" criteria). I see that lots of SOP guides now suggest 20% to 40% past and more on the future. I think these are probably better guidelines, but I maintain that there is no magic formula and SOPs are meant to be a little free form. If you can make a compelling argument, then focus on that first instead of trying to twist your essay into a predetermined/generic structure.

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I plan on discussing my previous research as part of my focus (and probably some in the fit as well). I've only ever been in one lab though, so not too much to say in those regards. In regards to future, I haven't fully planned that out yet, primarily just focusing on telling them basically my future plans (e.g. industry, make medicine cure disease, etc.). Still just brain storming ideas though until I hear back from the POIs. Thank you for your advice!

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I like @TakeruK's notes on structure and paragraph form. I'm still going through rereads and edits, but I think I've settled on something that looks like this:

  1. An introduction paragraph with my view of science, how that shapes my research interests and goals
  2. A paragraph on one of my interests and motivations, with relevant research experiences
  3. A paragraph on a related research experience deserving special attention
  4. A paragraph on a different, complementary research interest, with relevant research experiences
  5. A paragraph on my teaching/mentoring experience and how that informs my vision and goals
  6. A paragraph on my fit with the department's faculty and research 
  7. A conclusion paragraph with how I fit with the program's spirit and my future career goals

It amounts to two full pages at 1074 words. This may be on the longer side, but it's still well under the 1500 word limit set by the specs of one of my programs, so I assume 1000-ish words is not terrible. I might trim it some more, but it spins a coherent story from start to finish, so I think I'm happy for now.

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